Advice on fellowships

A friend of mine is applying for a Fellowship and sent through a draft of her application. This article is based on my advice to her. It is written for the Churchill Fellowships in the UK, but it applies to most fellowships around the world.


Young Winston, looking dashing.

Winston Churchill as a new Member of Parliament in 1901, via Wikimedia Commons

Fellowship applications are hard. They force you to stand alone. You are often applying early in your career, when you feel like you don’t have much to skite about. The temptation to puff yourself up is overwhelming – then you read back on it and it makes you want to vomit, just a bit.

On the other hand, Fellowships allow you to stand out. This is your moment to shine. Your moment in the spotlight.

I guess it all depends on where you stand.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust have been giving out fellowships for over 50 years – they have a very clear idea of who they want to fund. So, I’m going to read their guidelines first, and mine them for advice.

Travel to learn – return to inspire…

We fund UK citizens to travel overseas, exploring new ideas, and return with global insights to inspire communities and professions.

These are the Churchill Fellowships – and they’re open to all.

This is the best thumbnail description of a funding agency that I’ve ever read. These should be your watchwords when you are composing your application. Write for this audience.

Who have they given a Fellowship to before?

One way to think about the Fellowship is as a club, and you are applying to join that club. I had a look through the directory of previous Fellows to see who might have similar interests to you. I suggest that you pick one or two whose work you are interested in, and contact them (I see Twitter links, which is a nice ‘at a distance’ way to make contact, if you use Twitter). See if they are interested in your work. Ask them about their Fellowship and if they have any advice for potential applicants.

Also, find out if anyone in your network has had this Fellowship. Open up LinkedIn and search for “Churchill Fellow”. Then narrow the search to your 1st and 2nd order contacts. When I did this just now, I found one friend that had been a Churchill Fellow (but I had forgotten), and a list of ‘friends of friends’ who have been Fellows. It may be similar for you. If so, you could ask to be introduced to a couple of them, and ask them about their Fellowship.

In my experience, people are incredibly generous once they have been successful. It doesn’t cost them much time, and they get to talk about something that they loved.

What is a Churchill Fellowship?

“A Churchill Fellowship is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand your professional and personal horizons and, crucially, make a difference to communities and professions across the UK.”

These people write so well about what they do. They just told you who they want:

  • People who are ready to expand their horizons. Note, not ‘expand their contacts’. They want to help people to take their business (broadly understood) to the next level. You are ready to do that.
  • People who will make a difference. They want people who will either improve the world directly through their passion; or lead and inspire others to improve things (or both). You need to think about which of those aspects are strongest for you.

It is really important to think clearly about where you fit into their criteria and their priorities. Many applicants want to fit themselves into All The Things. That isn’t always the best approach. The funders are trying to get a sense of who you are. If you are strong in one area, make that clear. If you are weak in another area, don’t try to paper over the cracks. Give them an honest picture of yourself.

“…two months overseas, researching innovative practice on a topic of your choice. This is not an academic study, it’s a practical exploration of how things work in other countries, yielding global insights that can be brought back to the UK to influence change here.”

I think that you want to talk about your itinerary (broadly) and your contacts (name names, if you can), so that you can demonstrate what innovative practice you are exploring, how practical it is, and what sort of insights you might bring back to the UK.

Note that they don’t expect you to contact people before you apply, and they don’t need a detailed itinerary, just which countries and continents you plan to visit. From their FAQ page:

“…we recognise that approaching people and organisations may not always be appropriate before you have been awarded funding: so at the initial application stage, a rough outline of who you plan to approach will suffice.”

I just think that contacting people will help you to plan your trip, and a well planned trip makes for a good application.

“On your return, we can support you with advice and further funding to spread your findings locally or nationally … and to meet key players in your topic area…”

You need to have a clear idea, not just of where you are now and where you want to go, but how things might play out on your return. I suspect that a lot of applicants don’t focus on that aspect as well as they could.

“A Fellowship is for life, and you will be able to join useful networks of other Churchill Fellows…”

Like I said, you are applying to join a club. These people want you to succeed.

“We are looking for dynamic individuals who are passionate about their project and can show how they will use it to make a difference in the UK.”

That is your recipe for success, right there. You need to be dynamic, you need to be passionate, and you need something important to offer to your profession.

Why apply?

“…bring that knowledge back to the UK and use it here to improve practice and policy.”

How are you going to do this? Make that clear.

“During your trip, you will have time and full financial support to learn, reflect, network and develop in your chosen field…”

This is how you want to plan your trip. Who will you learn from? What opportunities will you have to reflect? What networks are important to connect to? The fellowship is a development opportunity – how are you aiming to develop through the Fellowship?

You also need to think about who you can inspire by acting as a role model. Most people have multiple aspects to their lives, so there are multiple ways to inspire. It is OK to talk about different aspects of your life, as long as the overall narrative is clear. As I said, the funders are trying to get a clear picture of who you are. It might help to talk about the different aspects of your life and how they relate to the fellowship.

How to apply

I’m assuming that you satisfy their eligibility requirements – you need to check that first. No point in applying if you aren’t eligible.

“Application: … This is your chance to tell us about your project and yourself.”

To my mind, this includes an itinerary and some of the people that you plan to work with, and why. You’ll be constrained by word count, and you may not have everything planned out to the last detail, so be brief. Just make it clear that you’ve thought it through.

“Many Churchill Fellows were unsuccessful with their first application.”

Be prepared to put in a second and a third application. Don’t expect to win the fellowship on your first try. Nice if you do, but plan for the long haul. I always encourage people to plan to apply three times. After three tries at anything, let it go.

“We are particularly interested in new and innovative ideas that address issues or challenges currently facing the UK.”

While the fellowship is an enormous opportunity for you, they aren’t doing this just for you. What is the big picture here, and where does your project fit in? How do you plan to help?

Many people stumble over ‘innovative’. You plan to do something that hasn’t been done before. Tell them why you think it will work. Let them decide how innovative it is.

“Our grants normally cover a stay overseas of four to eight weeks. Most Fellows visit more than one country, which we encourage, but we prefer these to be in a maximum of two continents.”

This is another reason to provide the bare bones of your itinerary – they want to know that it is feasible. You want to know that, too, so you should map it out first, even if you don’t put all that detail into the final application.

“We are looking for ideas that: Can provide public benefit in the UK, whether to a community, a sector or the country as a whole; Could not be researched in the UK and therefore require overseas travel; Are not already being implemented widely in the UK.”

Now we get to the nitty-gritty. Think about how your project will provide benefit, and who it will benefit. Be specific. You aren’t going to save the world in eight weeks. Be clear about what you can do.  Your training and experience allow you to do something that not many other people can do. Because there aren’t many others in your country, you need to go overseas to work with new people. Be clear about that.

“Your application must show: The benefits your idea would bring to your community, profession or other groups, and to the UK as a whole; Why your idea needs to be researched abroad, in which countries, and why it could not be done through desk-based research from home; What are your plans for sharing your insights once you return to the UK.”

Follow. This. Recipe. Seriously – they’ve just told you how to write your application, right there. Just do that.

Dissemination

The best time to plan your dissemination is before you write your application. It should be part of the overall plan for your project, as there is no point in going if you don’t tell others what you have learnt. If you think about who you are going to talk to when you get back, this will help you to clarify what you are trying to do when you are overseas.

“Fellows’ own networks: You will have your own networks within your profession and they will be your first stop for announcing the ideas you wish to see implemented in the UK. You will need to ‘aim high’, contacting CEOs, Chairs and MDs [Managing Directors, presumably] initially. Workshops, seminars, conferences, presentations etc are all good ways to share your recommendations with your own networks.”

That’s clear: step up! You need to think about who, in your country, would be interested in what you are doing. This should be a shortlist of Professors, Chairs of boards, Vice Chancellors and Heads of academic departments. The Fellowship will open the door for you, but you need to be prepared to walk in with a clear message, and listen to what these people have to say about your idea. Speak truth to power.

The application form

“On the final page, you will be able to review and print all your answers before submitting. After that point, you will not be able to print, retrieve or change your answers.” (Page 2 of the online form.)

Save early, save often. Please, please, please print or save a PDF of your application before submitting. You’ll need a copy if you apply next year, and it looks like you can’t get one after you submit. So print before submitting.

For most online applications, I recommend that you prepare your application in a word processor and then put it into the system. This helps you think through your writing in a familiar environment. It also guards against the weird randomness of online application systems.

“Bear in mind that we may not be specialists in your particular field.” (Page 5 of the online form.)

I’m really surprised that they didn’t make this point earlier, as it is very important. Don’t assume that your readers will know ANYTHING about your work or your field.

You are speaking to a broad audience, so you need to be clear about what you are trying to do. The best way to do this is to describe the issue, and then describe the solution. A clear description of the issue will make it easier to understand the solution.

“Please give your project a simple and clear title… make it relevant and accessible.” (Page 5 of the online form.)

No use to try for fancy riding now‘, as the Banjo would say. Save your clever title for the book that you publish afterwards. Be clear and straightforward: don’t use a colon.

A note on individuals

Fellowships fund an individual. They don’t fund organisations and they don’t fund teams. In part, this is because of the terms of their Trust. In part it is for administrative simplicity. However, it also reveals a belief in the power of the individual. They are looking for people (individuals, leaders) who can make change. We don’t normally think of ourselves that way, so you need to reflect on yourself and your ability to lead and inspire. It is a scary way to think about yourself, but also empowering.

Empower yourself – win that fellowship.

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia.

8 Responses to Advice on fellowships

  1. Rajesh Sharma says:

    This is so apt and inspiring too. Very useful guidelines. I like “travel to learn and return to inspire”

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Rajesh. Yes, I like that, too. The guidelines are very readable, and informative. That’s hard to do.

      Like

  2. Lareen Newman says:

    Thanks Jonathan, this is helpful info !
    Lareen

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Lareen. I think that it is hard for fellowship applicants sometimes – they have to do it all themselves. Hopefully this will help a bit.

      Like

  3. Wow, very helpful for my own future… if I ever get there

    Like

  4. Jo says:

    What a fantastic concept and mission this organization has. I’m often asked about funding opportunities for non-academics, and I struggle with where to send people. I wonder if there are equivalent opportunities for those in the U.S.?

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Hi Jo

      In the USA, the nearest equivalents that I can find are the Fulbright Scholarships (for postgraduate students and creative practitioners) and the Eisenhower Fellowships (for mid career people from all professions).
      Fulbright: https://us.fulbrightonline.org/
      Eisenhower: https://www.efworld.org/

      Your university funding office or local library may be able to give you a more comprehensive list.

      Like

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